Remembering…The Irish Masters

Older snooker fans will remember that this time of the year (well it was March really but it’s close enough), used to see the staging of the Benson and Hedges Irish Masters, one of the most popular snooker events on the circuit. Whatever happened to the tournament and why was it so well received?

Thanks to Dave Hendon of Snooker Scene Blog for the help with this post.

Having experimented with other formats for three years previously, Benson and Hedges first staged the Irish Masters tournament back in 1978 as the sister event to its Wembley counterpart. The venue was the iconic Goff’s situated in County Kildare, an arena which made the Crucible look spacious and with a real bear pit atmosphere provided by the local crowd.

Demonstrating that an invitational tournament can be every bit as successful as a ranking event, the first year saw six top players compete for the trophy which was eventually won by the late John Spencer. This format stayed in place until 1981 when the field was doubled to 12, but the essence of what proved to be a hugely successful tournament was to remain for almost another twenty years.

The most successful player in the event’s history was unsurprisingly the great Steve Davis who captured the title an incredible eight times between 1983 and 1994, with Stephen Hendry, Terry Griffiths and Ronnie O’Sullivan all taking three apiece. O’Sullivan actually won a fourth final in 1998 but was subsequently stripped of his crown following a failed drugs test, handing the title to Ken Doherty who became the first home winner of the event.

Steve Davis – 8 times a winner

So what went wrong?

As was eventually the case with all snooker tournaments, Benson and Hedges were forced to withdraw their backing of the event and were replaced as sponsors in 2001 by the Citiwest Hotel. Unfortunately this also resulted in a change of venue and while it was understandable that Citiwest wanted to host the event, the atmosphere was by all accounts vastly inferior.

Following this in 2003 the tournament was to become a ranking event, a consequence of the WPBSA victory against Altium which forced the governing body to stage eight ranking events that season. While this in itself should not have been a major problem, combined with the fact that host broadcaster RTE could only cover the event from the last 16 onwards, by which stage a number of top players would already be knocked out, a final line-up of Peter Ebdon and Mark King in 2004 did little to bring in the crowds.

Finally following the boom caused in China after Ding Junhui’s historic triumph over Stephen Hendry in 2005, the tournament was in effect replaced by the China Open. It is a shame because as the 6-Red World Championship staged in Killarney demonstrated recently, there is still interest in the sport in the country, certainly enough for a top line event even if not a ranking tournament. Hopefully the 6-Red tournament can establish itself as a regular fixture on the calendar and hopefully inspire the creation of a major 15-Red event over there someday…

To view more information including the tournament roll of honour, please visit Chris Turner’s excellent page on the tournament here.